Somewhere in my mid forties, I received the best present ever: an engraved plate meant to print an ex-libris, mine. I was astonished for the motives in the bookplate followed very closely the confidences (some of them pillow talk, you know) I exchanged for years with the woman who got me the engraving. I eventually got out of her life. She was one of these who doesn’t just turn the page; she tore the full chapter away !
I never used the plate. Until now
I recently wrote, just as an school exercise, a little tale. The subject was “What would you save from fire ?”. I fear I turned upside-down the question. And so, I gave the books and the traces we usually let into them play an outstanding role in the plot. On the other hand, I never returned the present to my dear friend the way she most appreciated: writing something for her eyes only. Maybe it’s time to recognize my debt with such a extraordinary woman although, most likely, she will never read my composition. Anyway…
For Emma, who is probably running right now.
In the fall of 2007, eight years before he set fire to it, my old friend Yegros invited me to his house. Some people believe that the paradise is in the shape of a garden, while others think it looks like a library. Yegros had had both presents. Soon after his father had passed away, he had received the property: a three stories brownstone house surrounded by a forest that spread until a quiet, almost lazy stream. The news come as no surprise: Yegros had always been such a lucky man !.
On the main floor was a very large room, the largest one of the house. A wing chair, a nearby floor lamp and a desk were the only furniture. The walls were invisible, as they remained hidden behind several layers of books lining from top to bottom, along wooden shelves. I broke the silence:
Maybe – Yegros answered and, pointing to the furniture, added- but I’d rather think just about a lonely, selfish old man in this… shelter. See ? Not a couch, not even an extra chair, no place for another people to share the reading. Just him. Like he was still in prison or couldn’t stand the shame on us and himself. This is a jail.
Then, as he picked up and handed me one of the books, a scholarly edition of Poe as I remember, a tiny piece of paper fell down to the floor. I recognized it as a Madrid subway ticket and restored it between the pages.
I kept visiting my friend’s house for a while. Sometimes, we met other friends, but we used to be alone and take long walks in the countryside or maintain prolonged silences by the stream and long conversations while playing any of our never ending chess games. Once and again, our chats headed toward his old man. I was well aware that Yegros never got along with his father, not even before the stormy divorce that tore apart the family. As far as I knew, dad and son remained perfect strangers for over thirty years. And yet, after all that silence, a so long absence, however maintaining a better relationship with some other children, the father had given Yegros, not his eldest nor his youngest child, such a special present.
Every now and then, I spent some time in the evenings at the library. I never found any antique o rare editions in my wanderings along the shelves. Neither a signed or dedicated copy; rather, I eventually came across some books with the signature of their owner and a date (I guessed that of their purchase) on the front page. Other books, that seemed more recent, didn’t have any mark. For some reason,this custom of mine seemed to bother my friend; thus, I shifted to other activities. As time went by, Yegros calls were less and less frequent and so were my stays. The last time I visited him, the outer frost seemed to have invaded the house. The library door was locked. Next time I heard from Yegros and saw the books was on the breaking news of a TV station.
The sight of the flames on the TV screen was not as devastating as the ruins on the house, which I visited some days after the disaster. As for Yegros, the self-confessed arsonist, he needed either a lawyer or a psychiatrist. Or both.
Several weeks later, the fire had been completely forgotten and the media were looking in another direction. Then, I received the message. Was this the right word ?. I suppose so, because it was the postal service who called to notice me about a packet in their offices addressed to me. But what I found in there was a chess piece, a king, whose crown could be lifted up to discover a USB connection. The only file it contained was a spreadsheet with several thousand rows. As I started to read the file, I recognized that the first cell in every row had the title of one of the burned books. Then, followed a number (of a page, I guessed) a date and on the last cell, an event that took place at that particular day or month or year or the description of some object from that time. On page 56 of an English edition of John Irving’s “A widow for a year” was found a dinner ticket from the Spring of 1995. In the last pages of the third volume of Asimov’s “Foundation” was a lawyer calling card. Some photos were found in Russell’s “Why I’m not a christian”. Other books had contained also some bills and Yegros found even a record in an art book. Every item was carefully dated and I didn’t take long to discover the truth, although a truth made of sadness and calling for the greatest anger. The books, the cheap, the ordinary, the vulgar books had been a pretext, a poor excuse. What the fire had razed was not a library, it was a time capsule. Or several thousand.
It had been no Borges or Poe. It had been Wells.
People usually keep records, items, signs of a pleasant past, of significant events in stone containers or in a biscuit box as lovers carve their names on the trees’ barks. All against time and oblivion.
But as people used to jotted down the name of their newborn in the family bibles so they noted as well their dead ones and so, Yegros’ father confided to his library all his sorrow and little or not happiness at all.
The right motives of his divorce beyond the trial and imprisonment that led him to serve first some years in jail, then in his own house; every occasion my friend was anonymously favored by him; the proof of his innocence; the proofs of the involvement of some family members in the plot; his trips; the purchase of several buildings where his children would find some surprising low fare rents in foreign cities; calendar sheets of every relevant date of their lives, and overall, silence, absence.
As I walked through the asylum gates, I wondered if I would meet either a man blaming himself for his insensitivity or feeling proud and grateful. If it was penance or pride what lighted not the books but the record of such a huge mistake.
Sometimes, the question can be not what to save but what let burn in a fire.